Chapter 1: A Cold Autumn Morning As the orange leaves crunched and shuffled alongside Sam’s feet, he could feel the trees rustling alongside the wind. He’d gone through many fall’s like this one, ones where the clouds blocked the sun and the wind loved to simply howl like a pack of wolves at midnight. However, there was something different this time, it wasn’t him; it wasn’t the forest around him, not even the weather. It was simply a feeling he was having, that something rotten was brewing, something he didn’t like one bit. Surviving by yourself for as long as he did, one learns to trust their own instincts almost… well, instinctually. A hunch here or a thought there was the difference between life and death, and when you’re dealing with funguses that can burrow into your lungs in only a single breath that line has been narrowed distinctly. ‘Eyes on the prize bucko, don’t forget where you’re going’ he thought to himself while continuing along the forest path, eventually making it to his destination, the city. A large and damaged ruin, overgrown with plants and fauna. The term ‘concrete jungle’ would be fitting if most of the concrete wasn’t buried by an ever-sprawling picture of nature taking it over. At one point, this place was most likely a bustling metropolis, filled with people and resources. He had heard stories from people who were alive before everything went to hell, about how there were massive buildings dedicated to selling things like clothing, food and whatever else they wanted, and then food started becoming scarce, people stopped making clothes, and the infected overran the cities. The government did it’s best to exterminate and keep most major cities infection free, and in some part, they were successful. But, eventually they would fall, all of them would. A firefly attack, a hidden spore in one of the buildings, corrupt groups within the government breaking off, whatever holdouts the FEDRA have left, they get smaller each day. The sight in front of him was one such example, though it looked like they abandoned this one a long time ago. He had been making runs throughout the city for a few days now, scavenging whatever he could find and scrounging up whatever government supplies they left behind. Thankfully, the weather proved to be far more forgiving than last autumn, so there was no rain this time, letting Sam make a small makeshift camp beneath a dead tree trunk he used for cover. The camp was about a 5-minute walk away from the city’s outskirts, leading up to a small overlook letting him observe the buildings from afar. He grabbed the binoculars from his backpack and observed. One of the lenses has been broken long ago, but then again most of the things he used were at least partially broken or damaged so as always he did the best with what he could and looked only with the half of the binoculars he hadn’t sawed off. Like with all the other times it was dead quiet, at least from the outside. He held his breath for a second and focused to see if he could hear anything. Once again, nothing, save for the wind beginning to pick up. ‘Right, let’s hope those bastards are still sleeping’ and with that he began his trek into town. With luck, it would be his last and he could finally get down south out of this damn cold. He never liked having to go into cities, though it was a necessity at this point, there were few places away from the beaten path with access to gunpowder, metals and scraps he needed, and one can only make do with a bow and arrow for so long. Carefully, he began his trek into the city, keeping himself alert every step of the way. Infected were never his strong suit, not to fight, nor to sneak around, and not even to run from. They were unpredictable, focused, and sometimes it seemed even unstoppable. Humans, they could be exploited, manipulated, taken out easily if one was smart enough, but the infected were a different story. They don’t care about the difference between a grown adult or a child, the threat between someone with a knife and someone with a gun, or even if the path to their target can be passed, they only have one goal, to kill you and create more of them. He’s seen it all, throats being bit open, skulls being caved in, jaws getting ripped apart, to all of that getting shot between the eyes or having an arrow in the gullet do you in almost seems like a mercy. At least your corpse won’t be a fertilizer ground for a fresh batch of spores and fungus to carry over to the next unlucky bastard. Once Sam could feel the concrete beneath his feet did he pick up the pace, it would be easier to hear something coming from inside the city, even though there a lot more places to get ambushed. Today would hopefully be his final run, so from his pack he pulled out a small list of things he had already spotted but couldn’t bring with him yesterday. ‘Right, let’s see what’s gonna be on the shopping cart today.’ he thought to himself. Shopping carts themselves were always something that bothered Sam, too noisy, too hard to use. His father once told him how they were used constantly, before, but he honestly couldn’t understand why. A backpack, a crate, hell even a bag seemed to be more useful. ‘People back then were stupid… no wonder the world burned up’. One last time he checked the list; -Wrench (auto shop) -Canned foods (FEDRA camp (2 cans left, gotta get ‘em)) -Hammer (gun store) -Jaw screw (also gun store) -Nice shirt (convenience store on the right next to liquor store, 2 miles away from town center) ‘Forgot about the damn shirt’ he thought to himself, though honestly it was better he didn’t get it yet, due to the little bit of sewer diving he did yesterday. Moving with a quicker pace he began jogging through the locations he was completely sure were empty. Though he didn’t like taking them on, there was only so long someone could attempt to go around infected, so Sam also made work to try and take them out, if only the ones who proved to be in his way. A few spike traps there, a couple of holes there, and soon the city proved to be a bit safer. Well, “safer” in the most loosest of terms. Eventually he got to his first stop, the auto station. This place was likely used to fix up whatever military vehicles FEDRA still had left, if the armored APC still lifted up near the ceiling was anything to go by. The wrench was a rusty old thing, but it was sturdy if the dead body of the stalker right next to it was anything to go by. ‘If you can cave a spore filled skull in, you can fix up a few bolts and screws’. One place down, three more to go. Next up, the FEDRA camp. Some light jogging, climbing in and out a few buildings, and occasional backtracking due to getting lost later he made it to the FEDRA camp. It was as deserted as a military base could be. Usually, when these situations happened, standard protocol was to secure civilian evacuation first then extract all resources available. Standard protocol, however, didn’t account for the human condition, and the fact that most soldiers usually tucked tail and ran the moment the outer perimeter had been breached. Didn’t matter if it was infected or fireflies or whatever else the world managed to throw at them, humans adapt, they survive, no matter whoever else is left behind. ‘Now which one of these is the cook tent?’ he looked along the line of half-torn army tents. It seemed like this was more a supply post than an actual living district, but he was no expert on FEDRA stations, so maybe those assumptions should be left to the people who abandoned their own. ‘I can’t say I’m much better though…’ Eventually he remembered the path to the supply tent and acquired what little canned foods the soldiers had left behind. It was a good find in all honesty; he had to make two full runs before just to get all the other things he needed, mostly shell casings and meds. With a can of peaches and strawberry in his pack, he had only two more places to go. One more if it looked like he couldn’t make it out before nighttime. The wind was starting to pick up again, but thankfully most of the clouds had parted so there was no real chance of rain, at least for now. From the sun finally rearing its ugly head it looked like it was about 2 hours or so past noon, so he still had time to go around and pick up all he needed. Until yet another thought came to his mind, or rather, an observation. ‘It’s quiet.’ In the first few days he was going around the city, Sam could find no end of infected mumbling and shambling about. A lot of them looked brand new, around a week or so of infection time on them. Most likely other survivors working in groups, scavenger crews working for nearby settlements. As for the others, it was the typical Stalkers and Clickers, but not a single other person. ‘Good. The less people around the less complicated it gets.’ Like with the infected, he had seen them all. From starving mothers and children to raiders and hunters just looking for a fresh new catch. Whenever he ran into any of them however, he tended to keep his distance, so much so they usually never even noticed he was there, and like a little rat, he would slink away without a sound. It wasn’t all bad though, there were times when he had found people in danger; hungry, thirsty, tired, injured or even currently being injured, and through his thick skull came some small shred of decency, so Sam decided to help them. In turn, he had their ‘everlasting thanks’, some of them even offered to have him join up with their community or group or repaid his kindness with some small token of gratitude. And yet, whenever he declined their offers of help, of companionship or of repayment, he was always met with the same looks. Relief, confusion, anger, understanding. He’s seen it all. No one likes a drifter, much less a wandering one. If he wasn’t seen as a target then he was seen as a victim. Some poor broken soul with a scar that couldn’t be healed. In reality it was just simpler this way. He didn’t have to worry about anyone else getting in his way or slowing him down, nor did he have to worry about being a bother to others. His father always told him that people look for others as a form of comfort, a linchpin to keep them steady in the darkest of times, and to lift them up even higher in the brightest. That in the end, it’s just a part of human nature. ‘Ever the damn poet you were pops.’ If it were an inevitable part of human nature then it would seem Sam didn’t have a need for it. He survived this long by himself after all. Everything falls, buildings, roads, people, you just have to accept it and move on. Everything falls, eventually. One good thing about all his journeys was that he could debate his existence all by himself for as much as he wanted. ‘I think I’ve had my fill of pessimism for now though…’ Sam thought to himself and moved on to the final two destinations. As he traversed the city streets he made it a habit to stop every few minutes to try and listen for anything, and every time it yielded the same result, utter silence. There weren’t even any pigeons flying around. What he was really listening for though was the infected. They usually liked to stay inside around this time, somewhere nice, warm and damp; the cold wasn’t too good for them as far as Sam knew. He would like to think that he was simply too efficient in his trap making and spore burning, but the reality often proved far too disappointing. Finally reaching the gun store, he entered through the main doors, the air inside the building retained the moldy, cramped and warm flow that filled many of the cities ruined corners. The front was not his aimed destination however, it was the back that had what he wanted. As he leaped across the mostly-intact glass counter, he entered into the back to find the gun pieces right where he had left them. ‘Right, time for some craftsmanship.’ It was a little pet project of his, to try and make a firearm entirely from scratch using nothing but his wits, his experience, the resources he could find, and just the tiniest bit of luck. From his backpack, he pulled out the half-done pistol. It was a crude design at best; The handle was made from the remains of a park bench he took a plank of and carved up to fit well with his hands. The barrel was more a single small metal pipe connecting with the trigger and firing mechanism to lead the bullet the right way. In addition, the little mechanisms he did manage to procure up until now amounted to scrap metal he managed to bend into screws and a trigger. You could fire it, that was sure, but try and do so and you might not have a hand to attempt it again. Which is why this small jackhammer and screw were vital to his design. He needed something to be able to ignite and push the mechanisms into motion whilst holding the whole thing together. He was hoping to also find some good polymer or plastic so he could try and make an outer shell for the barrel, a good way to stabilize it a bit and prevent the bullet from just shooting out the side if it ever exploded. Slowly but surely, he inserted each piece carefully into the firearm, carving and sculpting the body to fit in better and have the whole form give out a much more useful aesthetic, though in reality looks were not his top priority. Time flied by as the afternoon soon turned to evening and Sam had finally gotten his head off the workbench. He had done it, the hammer and screw were put in place perfectly, and his little pet project was beginning to come into reality more and more every day. Soon he’d have a fully working firearm at the ready for when the going gets tough, he just needed an outer case. It wasn’t the pure need for a firearm that drove Sam into making this gun. He already had a sidearm of his own that he carried around everywhere he went. A relic of his time back in DC. No, it was the urge for accessibility, the drive for something new. This gun may be crude and a bit unwieldy, but when he was done with it, it would serve better in this world than any military grade rifle. He got up from his stool and packed everything in his pack. He still had a bit more time before nightfall, and if he hurried, he could be out of the city and back on the road by first light tomorrow. ‘Let’s get that shirt.’ He got out of the back room with a near spring in his step, Sam was feeling good, up-beat, optimistic even. Not even a second after, his heart nearly froze and instincts took over. He jumped to cover behind the cash register, the only place not made transparent by glass. He heard a voice, footsteps… no, he heard hooves. ‘Riders, you gotta be ****in-’ before he could even finish his thought, he heard another voice. “You sure he was heading this way?” a man’s voice, deep and yet unsure sounding. “I’m sure.” Another voice, this time it was a girls. “Are you? Because the way I’m seeing it we’ve been wandering around the same city block for an hour now.” “I’m sure Jesse. Now quit whining, you volunteered for this remember?” “I volunteered because Dina probably wouldn’t have let me hear the end of it if I let you go by yourself.” “Well I’m glad to know my life, and in turn our friendship, means so much to you.” “So you are aware of how stupid this is.” “Just shut up and let me focus on the map.” The two voices became louder and louder the closer they got to the store, Sam stood frozen behind the counter. ‘Heading this way? He? These hunters… No, they don’t sound like the usual batch.’ He stood and thought on the voices. Trying to outrun them would be stupid, and hiding in the buildings if he got spotted would only go so far. His only option would be to sneak past them unnoticed… or to… ‘No, come on. Think… You just gotta think.’ He calmed down to listen in one more time. “Cross the street… go left… up right from the flower shop…” the girl mumbled as Sam heard the rustling of some paper. A map, most likely, or maybe just a list of directions. “We’re lost.” “And then circle back…” “We’re lost.” “After that…” “Yup, lost.” “Will you just shut up?! Complaining isn’t going to make us any less lost!” “Give me the map, I used to do runs here with Tommy, I know more of the terrain.” “Fine!” the girls voice shouted in a defeated tone. “Ass…” she mumbled. ‘Alright, maybe they’re just scavengers; they seem far too relaxed for someone hunting down a human being.’ And yet still Sam’s mind dwelled on the first words he heard ‘…he was heading this way… who did they mean?’ It wasn’t him, at least he thought it wasn’t. He had less than pleasant experiences with Hunters before, and a few of them sent out their fair share of hunting parties after him. ‘But still, this far north?’ he asked himself. “We wouldn’t have gotten lost if we didn’t make a detour in that stupid store.” The girl’s voice spoke up again and Sam put his ears up to listen. “And miss out on this sweet ass shirt? You wish. Now come on, I think I know where we’re supposed to go.” And with that the two spurred their horses forward, but not before Sam peaked over just out of eyesight to get a look at the two of them. A girl, it was tough to determine what age since he couldn’t see her face but from the sound of her voice she sounded young. The top of the broken window still of the shop obscured the two’s faces, however, Sam could still make out their body types. The girl seemed to be a bit smaller than the boy, she was skinny as well, though she wore a lot of loose fitting clothes it looked like. The boy seemed to be a bit older and of a larger build, at least judging from his voice. He wore much less clothes than the girl, who was equipped with a jacket lined with pockets, while the boy was wearing only a long-sleeved shirt. A shirt that seemed… quite familiar… almost the same as… “Son of a bitch took my shirt…” Sam muttered near-silently under his breath. It was weird to say the least, he hadn’t heard his own voice for what felt like years. However, there were more pressing matters at hand. On one hand, he could just beeline it back to his camp, sneak away without them ever even noticing. They do not seem to be putting up much of an effort towards searching every building, so it would practically be too easy, and it most definitely would not be the first time. Alternatively, he could try to snatch that shirt from them when they aren’t looking. The boy wearing it might be a tough hurdle to go through but he could manage, they would have to set up camp eventually. The question came up, would he follow them or not? ‘It is a nice shirt…’ He pondered for a moment, and soon the two other survivors vanished from his view. It was time for him to make his decision. Leave or follow. ‘Ah, screw it.’ And so he followed. Slowly and carefully, he slinked through the concrete maze, trailing them as they navigated through the cityscape. They obviously were ten times as confused as they let on, but the boy seemed to know what he was doing, and so the girl followed, with an unknown little rat right on their tail. ‘Slow and steady wins the race Sammy boy, stay calm.’ He thought to himself. A single wrong step could cost him his life, as it often does in these situations. It was a short while before the two riders stopped in front of the local museum. It seemed to be their destination, and Sam’s suspicions were quickly confirmed as the two tied their horses to the nearby trees. Meanwhile, Sam stayed hidden underneath the ruined wreck of an old military APC. ‘This is where they were heading?’ he thought, ‘It’s right in the middle of town, they must have passed it about a hundred times.’ He observed from a distance, and watched as the two conversed about something. At this point, they were too far away for him to catch anything. Once they entered the building however, Sam began getting closer. He made an effort to avoid the horses so to not spook them and give away his position. That meant he would have to avoid the main entrance as well. As he slinked past the horses and onto the side of the museum building, he found the old escape ladder that led up to the rooftop. ‘Could probably look at them from up there.’ It was at perhaps the halfway point of climbing up the ladder that Sam asked himself if this was really worth it. All of this for a damn shirt? Really? ‘Yeah well buzz off, it’s a nice cotton patch. Goes great with the skin and wind.’ He told himself off and continued climbing. Once on the rooftop he hunkered down and slowly began approaching the glass ceiling. He had to be careful, one wrong move and could most like slip and fall down there. All caution seemed to have been thrown to the wind once he heard the first gunshot. It was a loud, ringing, ear-bleeding sound. It reminded him why he hated guns so much, and yet, once again, instincts took over. Sam leaped to cover and readied his own gun. It looked like they had found him. ‘Dammit, they must have known! They knew I was tailing them! Is this a trap?’ Another gunshot, and then another, followed by a scream and a grunt. Soon Sam figured what was actually happening. The shots weren’t coming from up top, they were coming from down below. And with it soon came the screams of the infected. Runners, by the sound of them. He slowly made his way to the open rooftop that was once a set of fully encased ceiling windows. From down below he saw his two targets giving it their all to fight back a couple dozen runners all charging at them. With good precision, they managed to land a few shots, downing the initial few that were closest to them before the boy took out a hatchet, and began fighting them off with that. Meanwhile, the girl stopped using a gun as well, and fought the remaining runners with a pocketknife. Both fought with experience and general agility, evading all of the infected blows while dealing their own to take out as many of them as they can to not be encircled. But, there were simply too many of them, and soon enough they were on even more on the defensive. While the two did their best, Sam began contemplating. ‘Well… this is one way to get that shirt.’ It would be easy to let them die here and there and come back tomorrow to get their loot. ‘Then again… these fungus ****s are probably gonna tear them apart…’ the girl shoved a blade through one of the runners’ gullet. ‘Limb from limb… they’re not like clickers in that regard...’ a runner charged at the boy, to which he dodged and stuck his weapon into its skull. ‘And once they do die, who’s to say there won’t be spores popping up. Would rather not deal with that whole mess.’ The situation for his targets seemed to be becoming more and direr, and yet they continued fighting them off without a hint of hesitation. He almost thought it admirable to be standing your ground for this long, if it were him in that situation Sam would have ran after the first bullet was shot. “Jesse!” the girl cried out to her partner, who quickly got entangled in the iron grip of the infected. Had the girl not acted as fast as she did, the runner would have no doubt already planted his teeth into the boy’s throat, or worse. As their situation worsened Sam’s conscience began to feel sorry for the two. ‘Dammit, come on, just get outta there already.’ He thought. ‘What are you even staying here for? The exit’s right behind you!’ he screamed internally. And yet, they continued pushing forward further into the museum. It was only after he heard the name the girl kept screaming that Sam finally understood what they were doing. “Joel! JOEL!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, overshadowing even the ear-bleeding screeches and cries of the runners. They weren’t looking for him, that was confirmed at least. They were looking for this Joel guy. In the end though, there were just too many of them. Eventually, the exit became blocked off from new infected coming in. ‘A nest probably, somewhere down in the basement.’ Clickers liked dark, warm spaces to start planting a nest and start releasing spores, best locations usually are basements and underground areas. “Up here! Come on!” “Wait, what about-“ “He’s not here, now let’s go!” They fought their way through another round, but the exhaustion was clear to see, they will die if help doesn’t come. ‘Don’t get involved.’ Sam told himself. ‘You don’t know these people, you don’t care about them.’ Gunshots began ringing again as they traded in their melee weapons for firearms. ‘Just let them go. They are not important. They don’t mean anything to you.’ But they did mean something to somebody. This Joel surely meant a lot to them if they would go through this much trouble just to find him. There was no one Sam could think of he would do this much for, except maybe his father… but he died a long time ago. ‘Yeah… he did die didn’t he?’ it was almost a rhetorical question. He knew full well what became of his father, he was there the day he put that bullet through his skull. ‘Turning into one of those things. It’s a fate worse than death, than the most unimaginable torture, worse than everlasting solitude.’ Solitude, he knew a lot about that as well. And so, he gripped the rails of the rooftop and focused his efforts. It seemed morality had won him over this time. Reaching into his pack he grabbed a piece of rope tied around a grapple and attached it to the rail, before throwing it down. “UP HERE!” he shouted, and for the first time in a long while, he could hear himself clearly again.